TikTok, the Chinese mini-video music app which recently registered one billion downloads globally, differs markedly from its western rivals in that it is less about connecting with friends than about making temporary connections with other people based on fleeting interests.

And it does this with an algorithm that bypasses the need to learn from the start what users might actually like.

As The New York Times’s John Herrman put it: “Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok.”

Rather than evolving through assessing social interactions, he explained, it just starts showing people things and seeing what they do about it. And the same is true of the creation side: ask people to start making things and see what happens.

“You’re not actually sure why you’re seeing what you’re seeing,” said Ankur Thakkar, former editorial lead at Vine, the now defunct short-form video platform. “It [TikTok] is doing the thing that Twitter tried to solve, that everyone tried to solve. How do you get people to engage?”

The answer, says Hermann, is that “You fake it till you make it, algorithmically speaking”.

And that, he suggests, points to the future of all such platforms. Parent company ByteDance is primarily an AI business and applies a similar approach to curation on its hugely popular Toutaio news and entertainment portal.

In this way, the “filter bubble” that has caused such concerns in many countries, especially around political news and opinion, “isn’t an unintended consequence,” Hermann says, “it’s the point.”

“TikTok does away with many of the assumptions other social platforms have been built upon, and which they are in the process of discarding anyway,” he argues.

“It questions the primacy of individual connections and friend networks. It unapologetically embraces central control rather than pretending it doesn’t have it.”

So even if you’ve never heard of or used TikTok, it seems likely to influence how all social media platforms develop in the future.

Sourced from the New York Times; additional content by WARC staff